As Sina Thompson remembers it, she never asked to play the violin. Her mother told her she would. That was in sixth grade. Today the six-time grandmother is in her 16th season as concertmistress of the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra.
“I love the violin because you can play any genre,” said Thompson. “I have always enjoyed playing with other people. It has given me so many opportunities to do fun things.”
Thompson joined the Sugar Land Community Orchestra, as FBSO was originally called, in 1994 after a call for musicians went out. One year later she auditioned and won an appointment to the prestigious role of concertmistress.
What the average concertgoer sees on stage versus what Thompson does off stage is probably equivalent to one line of a musical score. Yes, she tunes the orchestra. She also exchanges the customary handshake with Music Director Dr. Héctor Agüero to signal his thanks to the entire orchestra and the mutual respect and cooperation they share. She also performs violin solos, but these are just a fraction of her contributions.
“The concertmistress role is the most important role one can assume in an orchestra second only to the conductor,” said Agüero.
One reason is because custom calls for the concertmistress to serve as assistant conductor if the conductor is unable to fulfill this role. Thompson, whose full-time job is teaching math and technology to middle and high school students, said she wouldn’t dream of doing this in a concert, particularly since FBSO has an assistant conductor. She might, however, consider conducting a rehearsal.
Agüero said as concertmistress, Thompson serves a vital role in leading the string section and working with him to find solutions to any issues that might arise during concert preparation. “Sina has the final say on all aspects of bowings and anything string specific,” he said.
Bowing is the art and science of making sure string players stroke their bows in the same direction for both artistic and musical impact. While there are certainly logical ways for string players to move their bows, the direction the bow is played can affect the sound.
“If I use an up-bow it creates a crescendo,” explains Thompson of the increasingly louder sound. “If there are an odd number of pickup notes, we want to play the downbeat of the first full measure as a down-bow. There’s also the visual element.”
Although Thompson would love to sit with all principal string players and go through the bowing, as an all-volunteer orchestra there just isn’t time. Instead she discusses and sets the bowings in rehearsals.
For Agüero the musical partnership he shares with Thompson makes his work easier. “Sina is very good at anticipating what I’m about to tell the strings and orchestra,” he said.
In addition to being a talented musician who sets bowings and shows string players how to technically execute Agüero’s instructions, Thompson possesses a charming and steady personality that makes her a natural leader. It is this role that has endeared her to her fellow musicians and makes her so valuable to FBSO.
“I affectionately call her ‘oh, wise one’,” said FBSO Board President Amy Billasch. “Because Sina has been with the orchestra for 17 years and served as president for eight of them, I know she has the historical and leadership background to give me sound guidance.”
Both Billasch and Agüero are quick to describe Thompson as the backbone of the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra.
During FBSO’s search for a new music director in 2006-07, Thompson was a vital member of the search committee, helping interview candidates, speaking with members and processing their feedback about potential conductors. Over the years, she has attended nearly every audition by prospective members, as well as the challenges between musicians for their chair placement within a section. This equips her to offer advice, if needed. She has also been known to counsel musicians who are not meeting the obligations that they agreed to when they joined the orchestra.
“Sina is a good leader and she’s always fair,” said violinist Sandy Chapman who has shared a music stand with Thompson for the past 17 seasons.
Chapman also notes that Thompson has given a lot of herself to FBSO and was responsible for writing a grant for many years that secured funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. FBSO received $10,000 yearly for six years until recent cuts in the federal budget.
Under Thompson’s tenure as FBSO board president, FBSO started a Young Artist Concerto Competition. Now in its 11th season, the competition fosters student musicians by awarding them a cash prize and the opportunity to perform with the symphony during a live concert.
“I’m just happy Sina believes in the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra and has given so much of her time to it,” said Agüero.
###A variation of this story, originally written by Nancy V Mills, appeared in the November 24, 2011 Ultimate Fort Bend section of the Houston Chronicle.